Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day. It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.
Josh LaFond: What a game, fellas.
Drew Hallett: It sure was something. MGoBlog’s Bryan MacKenzie summarized it in fewer than 140 characters best:
Michigan/Indiana: where everything is always stupid, and Michigan wins anyway.— Bryan Mac (@Bry_Mac) October 14, 2017
Michigan deserved to win, but was also very fortunate to win after blowing a 10-point lead in the final minutes and needing a goal-line stand in OT to make Indiana suffer.
Josh: Yes, but there were lots of positives to take away from No. 17 Michigan’s 27-20 overtime win against Indiana. What’s been on my mind most -- and what I want to discuss first -- is Karan Higdon’s performance. He ended with 25 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns, with two coming in highlight-reel fashion and at critical moments (a 59-yarder in the fourth quarter and the game-winning score in overtime).
Michigan’s offense has been in dire need of a go-to guy, someone who can create yards without much help from others. Jake Rudock, DeVeon Smith, Jake Butt, Amara Darboh, and even Jehu Chesson did this over the past two seasons, but this year, there hasn’t been that electric player who could do that. This might be a knee-jerk reaction, but Higdon showed against Indiana that he could be that playmaker for the Wolverines.
The running back-by-committee approach was a staple of the offense last season and has been to start this year. But after Higdon’s performance on Saturday, do you think Michigan’s staff sticks to the committee? Or does Higdon see the bulk of the work?
Kevin Bunkley: Based off Saturday, it’s time to give Karan Higdon the majority of the carries. The three other running backs who got carries combined for 51 yards. At least Michigan abandoned the passing game and stuck with what was working, but good lord that is bad. Chris Evans and Ty Isaac have faded the past three games and don’t seem capable of hitting the hole when the offensive line manages to open them up. But I’m sure they’ll prove me wrong next week and double their output or something.
Drew: Karan Higdon will be the starter and receive a plurality of the carries against Penn State, but Michigan won’t shift away from the committee yet. Yes, Higdon was excellent on Saturday, becoming the first Wolverine running back to rush for at least 200 yards since Mike Hart a decade ago, but none of Michigan’s running backs have shown much consistency this season. Ty Isaac was the closest when he averaged 112 yards per game and 7.1 yards per carry in the first three games. Remember when we all thought that he had locked up the starting job then? He’s since been bitten by injuries and a fumble. Chris Evans had a moment against Purdue (97 yards, 2 TD), but he hasn’t been very effective otherwise. Higdon has been strong the past two games, but he also had a costly fumble against the Boilermakers. We (not just us three, but people in general) have a tendency to overreact to the most recent piece of evidence. Let’s wait and see if Higdon can continue to perform at this rate for another game or two before he is anointed the all-mighty ball carrier and given the rock 30-plus times. Michigan’s best course of action would be to make Higdon and Isaac, who ran hard and well against Indiana (5.4 YPC) despite one missed cut, a one-two punch next week.
Josh: Let’s stick with the offense, and whew: how about John O’Korn and this passing attack? It sure was a far cry from his eye-opening game against Purdue a couple weeks back as O’Korn finished 10-of-20 for 58 yards. Obviously, this game raised some major red flags, especially following the less-than-stellar outing against Michigan State.
Remember when Michigan fans were screaming for O’Korn to replace Wilton Speight back when he was healthy? Good times. So after Saturday, do you guys think it’s time to throw Brandon Peters into the fire? Or does Michigan ride it out with Johnny-O?
Kevin: There’s no debate. Apparently, Brandon Peters knows less of the playbook than John O’Korn, so Peters is a non factor. Unless this has all been an elaborate ploy by Jim Harbaugh to not let Penn State see Peters on film. Michigan will need to design a game plan built around minimal passing because O’Korn missed more open reads. Maybe Michigan can rush for 400 yards and consume 47 minutes of possession.
[cough] run the ball a lot, Jim [cough]
Time to descend into #GetOffMyLawn mode to lecture the splinter group of the Michigan faithful who were adamant O’Korn was better than Wilton Speight.
I’m talking to you, guy who sits a few rows behind me in Michigan Stadium. And to you, faithful Maize n Brew commenter who begged Harbaugh to make the switch any time Speight failed to convert a third down. That also means you, bandwagon fan who insists the player on the bench is somehow always better.
Would you kindly submit your fandom cards to the Remittance Department at the Office of I Told You So Incorporated, located at East What Were You Thinking Avenue?
O’Korn’s 2017 stat line: 563 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions. It’s 2.5 games, but do you feel validated yet? Or was I watching a different game on Saturday than the one where O’Korn missed an open Zach Gentry multiple times and a wide open Donovan Peoples-Jones and picked up only two first downs on 10 third-down passes?
Drew: You were not watching a different game, Kevin. John O’Korn was very underwhelming for the second straight contest. The first one was understandable as Michigan asked him to throw 16 times in a wet, slippery second half against Michigan State. This one, in beautiful football weather, was not. O’Korn had a flash of brilliance when he pulled a Houdini to escape a third-down sack and drop a perfect ball into the hands of Donovan Peoples-Jones. Otherwise, he was a mess. He failed to provide a credible vertical threat to Indiana’s defense. He overthrew Peoples-Jones, which is difficult to do, for what would have been a touchdown and finished with a YPA below 3.0. That is abysmal. He made numerous bad reads, somehow missing a wide-open Zach Gentry on a crossing route underneath for what likely would have been a score on a two-man route and instead launching a deep ball into double coverage. He botched situational management that a fifth-year senior shouldn’t when, on 3rd & 8 near midfield in the third quarter, he allowed the play clock to expire before snapping the ball and revealing an exquisite shovel pass design that would have sprung Khalid Hill for a big gain. Michigan was instead penalized for delay of game, could no longer catch the Hoosiers by surprise with the shovel pass, and tossed an incomplete ball on 3rd & 13. These critical mistakes left way too many points on the board for Michigan.
I mean, in the second half and overtime, O’Korn completed just three passes for four yards. That is it. There is a reason that Michigan shied away from the pass in this game.
The ray of hope Michigan had in the second half against Purdue that O’Korn was above-average has all but vanished. That half seems to be an anomaly, not the norm.
Yet, notwithstanding, it’s not time to feed Brandon Peters to the, um, “Lions.” Michigan will not and should not hand him his first career start against a top-two or -three Penn State team in Happy Valley at night in front of a White Out. Oh no no no no. Not when he would have an offensive line that struggles in pass protection and receivers that will not do him any favors. That is asking for the redshirt freshman to have his confidence thrashed and spirit broken. O’Korn will have another chance, under the brightest of lights, to prove that he is deserving to be this team’s starter. However, if he struggles again like he did on Saturday, the discussion about starting Peters can be had because there will be no better time to get Peters’ feet wet than against Rutgers at home.
Josh: I want to mention one more thing on offense before we move on, and it’s something that isn’t being discussed enough: the offensive line was halfway decent.
Whether it was last week’s wake-up call or the insertion of Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle over Nolan Ulizio, they looked good. The offensive line didn’t allow a sack for the first time all season, and there were plenty of holes for the running backs to hit. That’s encouraging considering Indiana’s defensive line is senior laden. Now, John O’Korn ran for his life sometimes, but it wasn’t the norm. That’s a positive thing.
Do you think that the dog days are over for the offensive line?
Kevin: Penn State’s defense has tallied 17 sacks so far this season and has allowed opponents to convert just 34 percent of their third downs. GULP.
John O’Korn again was hurried several times, but the offensive line did better not giving up sacks. The line needs to stop committing false starts and holds, but the staff may have found their starting five and may begin fine tuning the blocking schemes.
Drew: The dog days are not over. Far from it. Michigan’s offensive line looked like a more cohesive unit when blocking the run, but it cannot impose its will on a defensive line. Late in the fourth quarter, Michigan had an opportunity to close out a win in regulation with a first down. However, just like it did against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State last season, Michigan fell short and had to punt because the offensive line could not get the job done (and Jim Harbaugh’s play calling was ultra conservative). And just like against Iowa and Ohio State, it lead to Michigan losing its lead in regulation.
Additionally, the offensive line will have problems in pass protection all season, especially at right tackle. Juwann Bushell-Beatty may provide some pop with his run blocking, but he does not have the lateral quickness to stone rushers. Indiana’s defensive ends were able to beat him on the edge occasionally, and he likely will be beat more frequently when he goes against the likes of Penn State and Ohio State. It would have been one thing if O’Korn had a clean pocket most of the day. But he dropped back only 21 times and had to work some magic to avoid taking a sack.
Josh: At this point, do we even need to talk about Michigan’s defense? They played outstanding, and although they had some scary moments (Indiana marching down the field to open the second half), the group as a whole bottled up the Hoosiers.
Are there any concerns about the defense at this point in the season? Or do you think they can continue their success?
Kevin: The interceptions by Lavert Hill and Tyree Kinnel are promising. That was the most impressive development I saw from a unit that has progressed much quicker than I thought they would. We knew the defense would be good, but the secondary was one of the question marks. I love that Don Brown blitzes when the opposing offense expects them to sit in coverage. And on the final play of the game, everybody stayed in coverage while the front seven forced an errant throw. All eleven guys on Michigan’s defense know their assignments and don’t let the offense get behind them. I’m slightly concerned at the pace of accumulated sacks and speed of the linebackers on the edge, but that’s partially a result of Michigan doing so well limiting long drives. I’ll take it.
Drew: Michigan’s defense is playing at a national championship level.
Michigan Defense (Week 7)— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) October 15, 2017
Scoring D: 8th
Total D: 1st
Run D: 6th
Pass D: 3rd
QB Rtg: 1st
However, no defense is perfect, and there will always be a concern of some magnitude. One is Michigan’s penchant for penalties, which seems to be a cost built in to U-M’s aggressive nature. They seem to be good for at least one personal foul each game and jump offsides more than average. Sometimes, it is of little consequence, but on Saturday, it contributed to Michigan setting a school record for penalties (16) and almost setting one for penalty yards (141). And those were just accepted penalties because there was one play where Michigan’s defense was flagged for three separate penalties (offsides, defensive holding, and roughing the passer). This provided Indiana better field position and better opportunities to score in a game where its offense had a difficult time moving the football. Yards are already so hard to come by for opponents against Michigan that it’s a wonder Michigan gifts them free ones so much.
There is also the question of how Michigan will fare against a great offense. The best offense that Michigan has faced was ranked 46th in S&P+ entering this past week (Air Force), and the others were basically below average. Michigan has shut these offenses down, but will that be the case against better competition, like when it takes on Heisman contender Saquon Barkley of Penn State (14th in S&P+) next weekend?
This may be the last question I have about this Michigan defense because they have answered the others. Don Brown is a wizard. Maurice Hurst, Jr. is an All-American. Rashan Gary is a monster that can only be corralled by multiple men. Chase Winovich has become a complete defensive end. Devin Bush, Jr. is a speed demon at linebacker. Lavert Hill, David Long, and Brandon Watson have been exceptional in coverage about two months after Mike Zordich publicly criticized them. In fact, Hill was fantastic against Indiana and looked like the next Jourdan Lewis, making a big open-field tackle before boxing out his man down the sideline and leaping for an interception. This defense has been a pleasure to watch the first six weeks. If only the offense was, too.
Josh: Alright, here’s the “fun part”. Penn State is looming and the game will be played under the lights, in Beaver Stadium, with the crowd in a white out. Do you both think Michigan can go in and win, or will it be a long trip home back to Ann Arbor?
Kevin: Michigan may go into practice this week and decide to go that extra mile and prepare like we haven’t seen so far this year. It really is going to hinge on John O’Korn fleeing from pressure and trusting his running backs and defense. Penn State is always beatable, but this is probably the year they take out their frustrations on the Wolverines. Let’s say something like 24-17, but the defense again plays well. I just expect more miscues and mistakes by the offense. Especially if they commit 16 penalties again. I may not be breathing by the end of the game...
Drew: No predictions from me. Not yet at least. Michigan’s defense is good enough to give the Wolverines a chance in any game. Yes, even against undefeated Penn State at night in Happy Valley. However, the offense cannot afford to shoot itself in the foot, which has happened multiple times in every game this season. It was promising that the Wolverines ran as well as they did against Indiana. It is something that they can build on and hope will be effective against the Nittany Lions. But the passing game will do diddly squat against a stingy Penn State pass defense. This was always going to be a nightmarish game for Michigan, even if it had an average offense. That hasn’t changed.
Josh: For what it’s worth, I have the Nittany Lions winning, 21-20. I think it’ll be a similar game to what Iowa-Penn State was in Kinnick Stadium just a couple weeks back.
Michigan should be able to contain Saquon Barkley for the most part with its dominating defensive line and linebackers, but the lack of a Wolverine passing attack will limit them from capturing the win. Penn State’s less-than-stellar defense will give Michigan chances to capitalize, but I just don’t think they’ll be able to. Hopefully I’m proven wrong and next week’s Reaction Roundtable we are discussing a Wolverine win.
Drew: Penn State’s defense is first in scoring defense, fourth in yards allowed per play, and fourth in S&P+. They’re pretty stellar, which is why Michigan needs to be perfect.
We’ll find out next week.